What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
This is quite a difficult question because the answer borders on being litigious. However, I’m going to take a deep breath, gird my loins, and then revise drafts so I’ve covered my backside with reasonable equivocation throughout.
I do base some of my characters on real people. Usually those characters are villains and, quite often, they’re based on people I don’t like. No. I was equivocating there. It’s not people I don’t like: it’s people I hate.
I remember once using the word HATE on FaceBook and someone commented that “hate is a very strong word.” I responded by saying “sanctimonious is also a very strong word but quite often it’s appropriate.” Curiously, they haven’t spoken to me since.
I base some of my characters on real people, using those facets of their personality that make them dislikeable. When I’m writing horror I subscribe to the puritanical belief that bad things should happen to bad people. Having unlikeable characters makes it all the more easy to make those characters suffer miserably before the end of a story. And the easiest thing to do when trying to create an unlikeable character is to base it on someone you know to be unlikeable.
For example, I have based some of my villains on former employers with despotic ideals; pretentious poets who’ve irritated me with their self-centredness; and idle or incompetent colleagues who have contributed to my low opinion of the human race. Occasionally one of these unpleasant characters will end up being a story’s antihero, which makes it all the more upsetting for the reader when they suffer the bad fate deserved by bad people.
What do I owe to these real people? I think they’re the ones who owe me. Despite their egregious faults and massive failings as human beings, they owe me a debt of gratitude for immortalising them on the written page.
I suppose, on some level, this is my way of finding a use for Coleridge’s man from Porlock* and, to that end, I have to concede that these individuals have been inspirational. But I think it’s a sad thing if a person’s sole contribution to the world is to be the inspiration for a fictional villain.
*Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) claims he was in ill health and living on a farm between Porlock and Linton. One evening in 1797 he took two grains of opium and fell asleep. When he woke up, he says, he was aware that in his sleep he had composed two to three hundred lines of poetry, the images being present in his mind as things. Seizing a pen, he wrote down the 54 lines of the Kubla Khan that we know, whereupon he was interrupted by a man from Porlock, calling upon him on a business matter. An hour later Coleridge tried to recapture what he had been writing, but it had “passed away.”
One has to wonder if it would be possible to draw a comparison between the man from Porlock and the eponymous antihero at the heart of The Ancient Mariner. If there are similarities between these two verbose individuals, perhaps I’m not the first writer to base unpleasant characters on unpleasant people.